Commentary: A Trump doctrine emerges - it is coherent but radical and wrong

Commentary: A Trump doctrine emerges - it is coherent but radical and wrong

The US president’s worldview puts economics ahead of ideals and values, says the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman.

LONDON: Since the end of World War II, there has been a remarkable consensus within the US establishment about foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats alike have supported a global network of American-led alliances and security guarantees.

Leading figures in both parties — from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan through to the Bushes and Clintons — agreed that it was in US interests to promote free-trade and democracy around the world.

Donald Trump has taken an axe to this Washington consensus. The US president’s departure from the established principles of American foreign policy is so radical that many of his critics dismiss his ideas as simply the product of a disordered mind.

But that is a mistake. There is an emerging Trump doctrine that makes internal sense. There are four broad principles underpinning this approach.

1. ECONOMICS FIRST

From his inaugural address, in which he decried the “carnage” and “rusted-out factories” of the US Midwest, Mr Trump has defined making America “great again” in economic terms. To this end, he has focused on countries that he believes have excessive trade surpluses with the US.

This emphasis on trade and economics blurs the distinction between allies and adversaries — many of the nations that have a large trade surplus with America are also important security partners including Japan and Germany. 

That is why Mr Trump described the EU as a foe this week. His economics-first viewpoint leads him to question the value of the US’s traditional security alliances, since he sees these as essentially a subsidy to economic adversaries.

Trump flew in to Britain on Thursday, having already subjected NATO allies to a roasting over their
Trump flew in to Britain on Thursday, having already subjected NATO allies to a roasting over their levels of defence spending AFP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

2. NATIONS NOT INSTITUTIONS

Most previous US presidents have expressed frustration from time to time with international institutions, such as the UN, the World Trade Organisation and the G7.

But Mr Trump has raised these objections to another level. He regards international institutions as bastions of “political correctness” on issues such as climate change. He would much prefer to deal with other nations on a one-to-one basis, where America’s size advantage can be made to tell. 

Multilateral institutions, where the US can be out-voted, are best avoided. The “rules-based international order”, carefully nurtured by previous presidents, is being deliberately undermined by the Trump administration.

3. CULTURE NOT VALUES

All postwar American presidents, even the ultra-realist Richard Nixon, have believed that their role was to uphold certain universal values. It has been easy for US critics to point out inconsistencies, and occasional hypocrisy, in America’s promotion of democracy and human rights. But the rhetorical commitment was a central part of the US approach.

Mr Trump, by contrast, has shown very little interest in democracy promotion or human rights. His conception of the west is based not on shared values, but on culture or, even, race. 

This leads to his preoccupation with controlling immigration, which he believes is the real threat to the west. He reiterated this view on his current trip to Europe, arguing that immigration is “very bad for Europe, it’s changing the culture”.

NATO Alliance Summit in Brussels
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

4. SPHERES OF INTEREST

Mr Trump is not a believer in universal values and rules. So it is much easier for him to accept the idea that the world could (or should) be divided up into informal “spheres of influence” in which great powers such as the US, Russia and China dominate their respective regions. 

The US president has never explicitly endorsed this idea. But he has hinted at it, in his suggestion that Crimea is naturally part of Russia — and in his frequent questioning of the value of America’s global alliances.

Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for dealing with strongman leaders, such as Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, may also incline him to try to settle disputes in the manner of a chief executive who divides up a market with a rival company. The question of what values the Chinese or Russians are attempting to spread in their regions is not of interest to Mr Trump.

The US foreign-policy establishment is understandably appalled by this radical departure from hallowed principles that have been upheld for decades. But there is a case for taking a fresh look at a foreign policy that was forged after 1945, under very different circumstances. Back then the Cold War was raging and American economic supremacy was unquestioned.

The problem is that Mr Trump’s policies are not just radical. They are also dangerous and morally suspect. 

America needs allies. Undermining the US-led alliance system and promoting “spheres of influence” encourages the expansion of Chinese and Russian influence.

Even if the Trump administration’s only concern is US economic interests, that is not a good idea. Previous generations of US policymakers understood that security and economic concerns are closely entwined — not antithetical. Mr Trump also has a very simplistic view of US economic interests, in which the only thing that seems to matter is a trade surplus.

And finally, there is the moral aspect. Many people will mourn the passing of an America that aspired to be a force for good. During the Cold War and its aftermath, it mattered that the world’s dominant power was a country that believed in promoting political and economic freedom. 

The whole world will pay a price, if that is no longer true.

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Source: Financial Times/sl

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